Browns’ defense will use options to solve question marks
BEREA — Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Shaun Rogers waddled up within range of the machine that hurls practice passes to wide receivers and set his feet.
Footballs came off the machine at a frightening speed, and Rogers was just a few feet away. But he would dip one of his mammoth hands into the path of the ball and snag it, like King Kong grabbing a plane circling a skyscraper.
So far in training camp, that’s the only action that Rogers has seen for a Browns defense that will count heavily on his intimidating presence on the front wall. Rogers is on the PUP list with a leg injury. It’s just another point of concern for a team trying to tamp down as many question marks as possible.
“We want to turn the page on last year, but we want to carry the same mentality as we had at the end of the season,” veteran linebacker David Bowens said. “Right now in camp we have the mentality that we’re attacking. We’re coming out in September and we’re attacking. Teams are going to have to beat us. We’re not going to find ways to lose games.”
The Browns were good at doing that a year ago.
In nine games the offense didn’t even surpass 12 first downs, an alarming lack of production that left even less margin for error on an already stressed defense. The Browns lost another game by a point at Detroit after time expired because of a defensive interference penalty.
But a four-game winning streak to end the season left them at 5-11. Now the defense feels it’s ready to reach for something more.
“I’ve talked to fans, just at a restaurant or at the airport. They do seem optimistic. True fans, they’ve been through the highs and lows. It’s time to give (some success) to them,” linebacker Chris Gocong said. “Just looking at our defense, it’s so much skill. If we can put it all together, I think we’ve got a real good chance.”
Rogers may be the key up front. Even when his injury mends, he could be suspended for bringing a loaded weapon into an airport. But on the field, he can disrupt an offense by clogging the middle with his 350-pound frame and pushing linemen into the backfield. He’ll likely be flanked by tackles Robaire Smith and Kenyon Coleman, making for a solid first line of defense.
Linebacker may be where the Browns are deepest and best. The front office pulled off some magic by plucking outside linebacker Matt Roth off the waiver wire from Miami and signing free agent Scott Fujita, who played at New Orleans last year. Gocong and D’Qwell Jackson will likely hold down the inside linebacker spots, with Bowens moving around wherever needed in the front seven. Eric Barton will also be a factor.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a world of options.
“Some are going to have to play on special teams, so that’s going to be a component of it,” coach Eric Mangini said. “Some may play in the sub-suited defenses: nickel and dime, goal-line, short-yardage and more run-specific defenses. There could be a lot of roles for a lot of different people — and meaningful roles.”
Jackson said all those experienced linebackers will not only improve each of the parts but also the whole.
“The more the better,” he said. “With the competition, it’s only going to make myself better, it’s going to make Eric Barton better, it’s going to make Chris Gocong better. And it’s going to make the team better.”
On the back end, Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown will battle for cornerback spots with first-round draft pick Joe Haden. Abram Elam and T.J. Ward fill the safety spots.
Ryan has been drawing up plays in the coaching room like a mad scientist, scheming up sets that may get more active athletes, more playmakers onto the field.
For a change, Cleveland appears to have some choices, not only in personnel but also in what that personnel can do.
“It doesn’t matter who’s on the roster, it doesn’t matter who plays what,” Bowens said. “That guy is expected to do a job. Everyone has evolved in the understanding that ego is all set aside. Everyone’s here to do their job. That’s how we’re approaching it.”